In Thy Kingdom Come: How the Religious Right Distorts the Faith and Threatens America: An Evangelical's Lament (Perseus, 2006), Barnard College professor Randall Balmer hurls many darts at conservative Christians-and some are on target.
For example, he writes that "the Bible contains something like 2,000 references to the poor and the believer's responsibility for the poor. Sadly, that obligation seems not to have trickled down into public policy." That's true-although 10 years of welfare reform have improved matters, much more could be done.
Balmer also declares that "those who make it their business to demand high standards of moral rectitude from others ought to be able to approach those standards themselves. My evangelical theology tells me that we are, all of us, sinners and flawed individuals. But it also teaches the importance of confession, restitution, and amendment of behavior." He is right to note that some "putatively Christian power brokers" have put on an air of purity while falling into adultery, theft, and other sins, and have then emphasized cover-up, not confession.
Other Balmer claims are questionable, but 18th-century poet Robert Burns wrote about the gift to see ourselves as others see us, so occasionally WORLD prints interviews with those who criticize values and actions that we generally praise. Here are some Balmer thoughts, without further editorial comment.
WORLD: You write that "on judicial matters, the religious right demands appointees who would diminish individual rights to privacy with regard to abortion." Is there a right to abortion in the Constitution? If so, where is it found?
BALMER: The judicial precedent cited in the Roe decision was the 1965 Griswold ruling, which ensured a right to privacy. I'll let the judicial scholars (which I am not) sort out whether or not privacy is warranted by the Constitution-though I do think it is at the very least implicit in the constitutional protections against search and seizure.
I have little regard for the so-called "originalist" scheme of constitutional interpretation propagated by Antonin Scalia and others. Originalism is a mechanistic approach that limits the protections of the Constitution to the supposed "original intent" of its framers. Originalism has been used, for example, by Roy Moore, former chief justice of the Alabama Supreme Court, to argue that only Christianity is protected under the First Amendment because the founders had no knowledge of, say, Islam or Hinduism or Buddhism.
The silliness of originalism becomes apparent, however, when you apply it to the second clause of the First Amendment: freedom of the press. Hewing to the absurd logic of the originalists, magazine editors, radio commentators, documentary filmmakers and television journalists are excluded from constitutional protections because the only "press" the founders knew was the newspaper.
I view the Constitution as a living, breathing, organic document, not one to be approached mechanistically. The originalists are disingenuous and, frankly, intellectually lazy.
WORLD: You criticize a proposed "rejiggering of Social Security, the effect of which, most observers agree, would be to fray the social-safety net for the poorest among us." Don't most observers expect that, as the proportion of workers to retirees decreases, that net will fray and probably break unless Social Security is rejiggered in some way? What rejiggering would you support?
BALMER: The best way to restore the Social Security system to solvency is for the federal government to exercise fiscal discipline and, more directly to the point of your question, to stop borrowing from Social Security. (Remember Al Gore's "lockbox" during the 2000 presidential campaign?) The deficits in federal spending over the past six years have been ruinous; our children will be paying for our irresponsibility for decades to come. On fiscal matters, I'm far more conservative than George W. Bush or the Republican majorities in Congress.
WORLD: You write that those who believe in creation seek "to replace science curricula with theology, thereby transforming students into catechumens?" What do you think about the rather modest proposals from the intelligent design side that stress teaching the objections that some scientists raise to macro-evolution, rather than catechizing kids in Darwinism?
BALMER: I believe in "creation" in the sense that I acknowledge, on faith, the divine origins of the created order. The problem with intelligent design, as George Will wrote, is "not that it is false but that it is not falsifiable. Not being susceptible to contradicting evidence, it is not a testable hypothesis. Hence it is not scientific but a creedal test."
As a person of faith, I believe in intelligent design (or something close to it). I believe that an intelligent designer was responsible, in ways I cannot explain, for the created order. But my warrant is the canon of Scripture, not the canons of scientific inquiry. I resent, moreover, the inference behind the intelligent design movement that faith needs validation from science. I refuse to allow the canons of Enlightenment rationalism to be the final arbiter of truth. I elect to live in an enchanted universe where there are forces at play beyond my understanding and control-and where faith, not empiricism or tortured apologetic proofs for the existence of God, serves ultimately as my guide. I wouldn't live anywhere else.
WORLD: You complain that "the torture of human beings, God's creatures-some guilty of crimes, others not-has been justified by the Bush administration. . . . The use of torture under any circumstances is a moral issue." Agreed that torture is terrible and sometimes useless in gaining information, but if the imminent explosion of a nuclear bomb would kill millions of people, and if by applying some kind of physical pressure to a terrorist you could gain information that would lead to its location and disarming, would you do it?
BALMER: No, absolutely not, and I'm surprised that you would even suggest such a thing! I was under the impression that conservatives were allergic to utilitarian arguments; certainly that is what I learned from Paul Ramsey in graduate school. No Christian, he insisted, ever made an ethical decision solely on utilitarian grounds-what is the greatest good for the greatest number of people-especially if it compromises the worth and dignity of an individual.
In the course of writing Thy Kingdom Come, I contacted eight religious right organizations with a simple, straightforward request to send me a copy of their group's position on the use of torture. Only two organizations replied, and both of them defended the Bush administration's policies on torture. None of the others, to my knowledge, has even yet condemned torture.
That's morally bankrupt. These are people who claim to be pro-life, who profess to hear a "fetal scream," yet they turn a deaf ear to the very real screams of human beings who are being tortured in our name.
This issue also illustrates the peril of aligning faith too closely with any one political party or (in this case) a specific administration. Religion always functions best from the margins of society and not at the centers of power. When it is identified with the power structure, it loses its prophetic voice. As I write in the book, I really didn't expect the religious right to climb out of the Republican Party's cozy bed over the issue of torture. But I did think they might poke a foot out from under the covers and perhaps wiggle a toe or two. Sadly, tragically, I was mistaken.
WORLD: You attack the Bush administration's "expansion of tax cuts for the wealthiest Americans." But if it could be shown that wealthy Americans now pay a higher percentage of income tax revenues than they did before the tax cuts, and that those tax cuts have been good for the American economy and thus good for the poor, would you still oppose those tax cuts, and why?
BALMER: You're imposing a pretty high standard of proof-namely, that tax cuts for the affluent have, or someday will, jump-start the economy. Much of the evidence suggests otherwise.
No impartial observer would dispute that Republicans favor economic policies disproportionately advantageous to the wealthiest Americans. To the extent that leaders of the religious right support those policies-and I haven't seen much in the way of dissent-they have betrayed the heritage of 19th-century evangelicals, who overwhelmingly took the part of the disadvantaged.
WORLD: Regarding the battle against poverty, you write that "we could have a lively discussion and even vigorous disagreement over whether it is incumbent upon the government to provide services to the poor, but those who argue against such measures should be prepared with some alternative program or apparatus." What do you think of the alternative programs that have been proposed under the aegis of compassionate conservatism?
BALMER: The problem with faith-based initiatives is, first, they are dispensing services with government funds, not charitable donations. Second, it opens both church and state to a kind of collusion that (at least potentially) compromises the First Amendment, which is already under siege.
If religious organizations want to use the benefit of their tax-exempt status to take over the functions of government in assisting the poor, I have no objection. In so doing, they would be reclaiming the role they played in American society until the 1930s, when the social ills of the Great Depression became so overwhelming that the government had to step in. The churches simply could no longer handle a challenge of that magnitude.
If churches propose some kind of apparatus to reclaim that role from the government, I'm all for it. As my daughter would say, "Bring it on!"